The call came the moment the cell signal returned, somewhere down the serpentine descent of Callahan Hill on SR-7. Static fizzed as he picked up. One hand and one eye on the wheel and ahead where the wipers jerked at the glass in a frictional yowl of the kind that brought to mind the terrible sounds of stray cats mating.
“Ludlow,” he repeated, as a handful of rainwater splattered, tossed by wind through the low branch of a passing tree. “Jesus, you’re kidding me?”
“He’s asking how long, Larry.”
Larry clicked the wipers away. Instantly the glass splattered rainfall. He clicked them back, rubbing his neck “What the hell are we takin’ jobs out there for?”
“Foss said to.”
Outside the reflectors whipped, the road ahead bulging to a tight curve down the hillside. Larry shook his head in disbelief. Of course, Larry thought, Foss. Foss who was right now supine in a dark room, his gelatinous throat wheezing as he snored like a monstrous infant.
“What do you want me to tell this guy, Larry?”
(Tonight I gotta cut!)
The radio was playing. An Oldies Station called ‘93.7 The Hop’. Larry was surprised to find he recognized the song as the title track from Footloose, that corny old musical about rock ‘n’ roll and teenagers. In the dirge of the van and the rainfall, the music was little more than a tinned gyration, but Larry recognized the voice of Kenny Loggins and, for a second, he saw the watery images of Kevin Bacon and Lori Singer dancing in tight eighties denim across the silver screen of the moonlit windshield.
(Kick-off the Sunday shoes!)
“Yeah, sorry, bad line.”
“You gonna take this one or…?”
He cleared his throat, blinking as the road pinned right. “I’m on seven, way back from the Walmart. The exit, uh, Four Fifty-Three…that was a couple miles back I think.” He paused. “You sure this can’t wait until tomorrow?”
(Please, Louise, pull me off of my knees?)
“I’m sorry.” He heard her sigh. Larry already knew the answer. “Said it’s gotta be tonight. He was real insistent of it.”
“Want me to see if Cousins’ll go?”
(Jack, get back, come on before we crack)
On the windshield screen, Kevin and Lori’s water dancing became the unsightly pudding-face of Millard Cousins. Cousins was the kind of kid who made Forrest Gump seem on top of shit. He was probably awake, Larry thought. Up jerking off or watching cartoons, dual-wielding a bong. Kid was always fucked up. Most kids these days, it seemed to Larry, were always fucked up in some way or another. While the idea of sending Cousins out to Ludlow on a rainy night was tempting, the prospect of his stoned ass careening off the edge of a gully or pulled over by the Pennsylvania State Police was too much. “That’s okay, I got it. Need the money anyhow.”
“I appreciate it.” Colleen sounded genuinely thankful. He thought she was about to hang up, but then: “By the way, uh, I heard about Kitty.”
“I had no idea it was today.” He sensed her shudder. Millard's face began to fade, becoming instead a kind of melting skull in the dark. “You, uh, you didn’t say nothing!”
“I know, I’m an asshole.”
“I don’t mean that, Larry. But you know Foss would’ve given you the day off. You coulda just--”
(Lose your blues...everybody cut...foot...)
“Enough.” He flinched suddenly. It sounded harsher, more dismissive than was intended. “Sorry, it’s just I…I don’t really got nothin’ to say. Listen, there’s a Trooper comin’ up ahead. I’ll check in with you when I’m done, all right?”
“Oh, okay I’ll--”
Larry clicked off the phone. Stretching his back, he gazed up to the rear-view mirror. The song began to fade.
For a moment he imagined a face. Not Millard or the melting skull but another face in the dark of the back of the van. A face buried in that dark, watching him from inside of it as the fading song merged with the toneless screech of the van hurtling through the rain.
When he pulled up a group of teenagers were throwing around lumps of slush and laughing. The storefront bright with neon light but otherwise empty and peaceful.
“Sure looks like a damn emergency."
With the engine off and the window peeled, he pulled out a pack of Pall Malls and lit one with the care of a priest lighting a thurible. He rarely smoked anymore but there was a kind of ritual about a cigarette before a job that transcended smoking the way sips of communion wine did temperance. With the cigarette burned down, he pulled the hood of his old Carhartt jacket tightly around his face and climbed down to the icy tarmac, shivering in the frozen Midwestern air as he unloaded the equipment. Once done, he paused to peer into the back of the van. It smelled of old oil and mildew, the vestiges of stale shit and the remains of the Pall Mall he had just smoked, but above all empty.
“Footloose,” he murmured, slamming the door, taking the freezing steel handle of the dolly. By now the kids were gone. Only their slush remained. Spilled about the sidewalk like bleached organs across an abattoir floor.
“Guess you must be our plumber?”
Without his glasses, all Larry saw in the bright light was a gray hovering near those self-checkout machines that seemed to him to be taking over the world. His eyes cleared in time to see the jutting hand.
“Henry Conroe," said the owner of the hand, "I’m the one who called. Very pleased to meet you, Larry.”
“How do you know my name?"
"Ah, I know everything there is to know about you," the man said, but there was a twinkle in his eye and his face cracked. "Kidding, sorry. Your dispatcher told me when I called in asking when somebody'd be here. Hope you don't mind?"
"Oh. Nah you're fine."
“Thank you so much for coming out.”
“Sure. No problem.”
The man was probably in his early forties, just old enough not to seem like the usual kid-in-the-cheap-nylon-suit that usually managed these damned places. This guy’s suit was of well-fitted wool with a blue silk tie, and a canary yellow shirt.
“You the manager?” Larry asked, frowning.
“In a manner of speaking.”
The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card and handed it over. The card was thick and heavily embossed. It had the logo but otherwise was atypical. He read it, frowning, then looked up, disturbed. “Vice President?”
“Fancier than it is, unfortunately. I merely oversee field operations of our Midwest market.” He paused, his eyes sparkling. Gray eyes that matched his suit. “The manager left, I said I'd watch the store. Got this masochistic streak, you know? You ever just like to put yourself through hell, Larry?" He chortled. "Seriously though, think there may be one of the assistants still in the office if you need me to go get them? I know how it is. How it can be.”
“No you’re fine.” Larry shook his head quickly. “Sorry I, uh, I didn’t mean to be rude. I just ain’t much when it comes to…well uh, I’m not much of a talker, you know?”
“Quite understandable.” The man smiled. “How’s Robert?”
“Isn’t that his name?” The man raised his eyebrow in a way Larry didn’t much like. “Not working you too hard I hope?”
“Wait, you mean…you know Bob Foss?”
“I remember meeting him once or twice. Always seemed like a nice enough guy, though I don’t have to work for him, right?” He laughed. “I always did like your company, Larry. We never had any problems before.”
Before, Larry thought, a grim feeling arriving. This wasn’t just some schmuck in a suit. If Foss knew some corporate bigwig was hanging around a store in Ludlow, of all places, Larry knew he’d likely shit his pants. Shit his pants, then come running out covered in all that shit just to slobber all over this guy and his immaculate gray suit. Foss was good at that. Larry, on the other hand, was not. “You want me to call him? I mean, if there’s some problem?”
“Oh no, no, it’s nothing like that.” Conroe glanced at his watch. A handsome gold timepiece, the kind of watch Larry knew probably cost more than he made in a year. “It’s kind of a special case. Something I have a sort of personal investment in. A project, of sorts.”
“I see,” Larry said, not seeing at all. “Well, listen, I gotta tell you sir, I’m expensive as hell this time of night. So if it can wait until tomorrow I recommend --”
“Unfortunately that won’t possible.” Conroe gestured toward the back of the store. “Follow me, here, I’ll show you.”
As he walked through the empty aisles, Larry found himself thinking, as he often did, about the old days working residential.
Homeowners tended to be one fry short of a Happy Meal, sure, but they mostly knew better than to waste their money. You could talk sense into them. Besides, there was usually a nice vulnerability to a guy or gal whose fresh guano sat floating in plain view. Commercial work was different. These twenty-four-hour chain stores always had something. Somebody primed to freak out like they were worried the Queen of England was going to walk in at 2AM and demand to take a dump. There was nothing like plumbing to encounter irrationality.
It was that irrationality Larry sensed coming as Conroe led him to a door in the back marked CUSTOMER RESTROOM.
“Here we are,” his voice was hushed in reverence like he was showing a prime penthouse in the middle of Manhattan. The restroom door clattered the dolly as Larry dragged it inside. “Where the magic happens, as they say.”
Larry set the dolly down, peering around the restroom, his lungs opening and closing in assiduous inhalations. If there was one thing plumbing gave you it was a strong stomach. A strong stomach and a smart nose. Often it was smell alone that foretold the problem. Not just a shit or piss smell, though that was everywhere, but the signature of the plumbing system itself.
Old pipework was richest, with its acetic odors of flaked rust. The newer pipes, on the other hand, often still smelled of the factory. In between was down to material: Copper rich and haughty, steel cousin metallic and robust. Anything plastic was practically odorless. In the older buildings, you still sometimes came across the occasional surviving lead drainpipe. Larry held a soft spot for the lead. A good lead system, like the ones the Romans built, could last a hundred thousand years. Poison or not, that was impressive.
But now, here, he smelled nothing.
Nothing at all.
He suddenly was aware how clean the restroom was. No, not just clean, but spotless. A simple affair of four stalls and three sinks, there was no hint of any problem lurking. He turned to Conroe questioningly.
“It’s the toilets?”
Conroe nodded slowly. He was no longer smiling. Larry wandered over to them, peering into each bowl. All were immaculately clean, a normal level of water. . “You sure? They don’t look clogged.”
“I am aware of how they look, Larry.”
“Well, if it’s a regular block-up I got a hundred-foot snake that should be sufficient. If not, I’ll likely have to come back another time with the jetter and another man.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Conroe turned his head, his gray eyes appearing darker than before. They were very dark, Larry noticed, almost black. Must be the light. “This needs addressed tonight. Did I not make that clear? At all costs.”
“What exactly needs addressing tonight, sir?”
“What’s down there.” Conroe frowned distastefully. “It’s something quite unpleasant.”
“Tampons I bet?”
Conroe looked bewildered.
“You know, uh, feminine products. I spend half my life clearing the damn things out of
women’s restrooms. You’d think they’d learn, huh?”
“It isn’t anything like that,” Conroe said, a faint redness forming in his pallid cheeks. “You’re not understanding.”
“Do you have one of those cameras?”
“One of the ones that let you look down a pipe.”
“An endoscopic? Sure….why?”
“I want you to run it.”
Larry looked at the toilet, then back. “I’d usually snake before doing any of that. I mean,
it isn’t usually unnecessary.”
“It’s very necessary.”
“It’s expensive, I mean, especially now. You're lookin' at double-time after hours.”
“That doesn’t matter. Now, how far?”
“Into the pipe, how far inside can you see?”
“Oh.” Larry felt his heart sink. “Pretty far, I mean, the cable’s fifty feet give or take.” He
paused. “Can I ask why you think it’s needed?”
“I just need it done. Right now. It’s very important.”
He’s nuts, Larry thought. He scratched at his beard, wondering what to do. Conroe didn’t seem drunk or high or anything else that might explain this increasingly bizarre conversation. Truthfully, up until now, he had almost found him tolerable, if a little erratic. But now? Now he just seemed unhinged.
“Look I gotta be honest…” he began, “I...I’d rather not do this. Not tonight.”
“It's just...” Larry swallowed, “...well no, won’t bore you with it. I just got some stuff going on. Personal stuff. My wife—“
He waited, sweating, expecting the usual froth of half-assed sympathies and platitudes. At the very least he expected the crazy talk about cameras to end. But Conroe’s gaze remained poised with incredulity.
“I’ll make sure the toilet works if that’s the problem. But I can’t spend the rest of the night here, which is what it would take to...”
“Unfortunately, you don’t have a choice,” the man said.
Larry was suddenly aware of a dripping sound. A quiet throb coming from over by the sinks. One of the faucets was leaking. He had not noticed it until now but now the rhythmic kiss of the liquid hitting ceramic was clearly pronounced.
“I called you out here, did I not?”
“Well yeah, but--”
“You attended.” The eyes seemed to glow beneath their strange darkness. “You agreed to
take the call, did you not? You drove yourself here. You agreed to walk back here with me, to hear about the problem and what I needed. And now, no Larry, you don’t get to say no to me. That isn’t what I'd call acceptable.”
Larry stared, aghast. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
“A paying customer.”
A wallet had appeared in his hand, a sleek black leather thing with thick silver trim. Conroe stepped forward. He seemed taller now, too, though Larry couldn’t say he was sure of it. “But, if you refuse to acknowledge this arrangement, I could just go call Bob Foss? Is that what you want, Larry? You want to lose what’s left of your sorry ass over your inability to commit to your own decisions?”
“Listen buddy, I--”
He let out a startled cry. The slender fingers, cold and hard, were alarmingly strong for a guy who looked like he’d struggle to lift thirty pounds. They opened Larry’s palm and closed it again. Above Conroe’s eyes were now the color of burned coals.
“Take it,” he hissed, “once you’re done I’ll double it, triple it, whatever you want - but however long it takes I need you to find what’s down there, you understand? However long it takes…find it.”
“Find what??? What the fuck--”
But the gray figure had disappeared behind the slam of the weeping door. When Larry looked at the bills in his hand, he counted almost two thousand dollars. Cash.
The technical name was ‘Endoscopic Sewer Inspection Device’.
This was a pretty good model: Korean-made with a ten-inch HD screen built into a no-bullshit console the size and shape of a laptop computer. It retailed between two and three thousand dollars, a fact Bob Foss was always quick to bring up whenever anybody complained about pay.
Larry hated the thing, knowing he was always just one bad belly or bastard tree root away from having to explain to Foss, ol' Queen Bitch of the Bunched Panties, the precious thing had crapped out. Even now, thirty years in the trade, his fingers still trembled when he took the machine from its leather and balanced it against the back of the seat, propping the monitor against the tank where it stood precariously above the chasm. Whoever designed the damn thing had never had to use it.
That much was for damn sure.
He set the heavy spool of industrial cable on the floor. There was no outlet, which meant a record time of twenty minutes max using the battery, but Larry figured he was damned if he was about to spend longer than that anyway. Twenty minutes was a long time to spend looking for something that, as far as he could tell, didn’t exist. For a customer whose ass he was within one whisker away from kicking.
The shadow blurred and the cable sprang from the spool. Vanishing in a thick glug.
Larry held it tight, listening to the whoosh of cable. Conroe was right about one thing: Snaking would have been unnecessary. The flush was perfect. He turned his attention to the screen. The waking LCD hung in a wobbly black for several seconds, the image muddied by the rushing torrent. Once it began to still, the cable gradually loosened. He clicked the button for the LCD light.
It was easy to forget it was only a few feet beneath his knees as the seething texture of the pipe loomed into view. Contrasting shades of greenish-black riddled with the cancerous rouge of rust appeared as a gloomy, alien tapestry.
“Cut loose,” he murmured, gently feeding out more line, the probe advancing intrepidly through the narrow drain. So far, the line looked as clear as the bathroom. Even the rust was minimal. The telltale signs of a restroom that was seldom used. “Kick off the Sunday shoes.”
(Like that time--)
“Please, Louise, pull me offer my knees.”
(That wedding ring--)
“Jack, get back, come on before we…we...”
Larry blinked, his mind distracted by the memory that came from nowhere and now stuck. The wedding ring. There had been a few of those calls over the years. Some panicked young fella it was usually, freaking out over some pricey Tiffany piece their buddies had entrusted them with and that had somehow ended up slipping into the abyss along with the squalid urine of a hangover. Or sometimes some ditzy housewife who’d forgotten to take the thing off.
But in this memory, there was nothing like that.
Watching the pipes, he saw the funeral home.
One of his very first solo calls, it was, back in the eighties. Less than a week after Kitty and he had tied the knot. He had been there for something else. What, he couldn’t say. Couldn’t remember why he’d been there. Only that it had been a service call and that it had involved the endoscopic camera. Only that, just like now, the system had turned out to be perfectly fine. He had been about to pull out. But then he had stumbled on the thing.
Glinting in the cradle of the pipe. Six feet down.
Six feet exactly. There was a joke in that, somewhere.
Larry remembered when he had reported it to the director she had looked puzzled. Said she had no recollection of any lost ring. But no, she sure as heck wasn’t about to pay to have it dredged. Said it could stay there until whoever had flushed it remembered. If they ever did.
But here, now, he was fifteen feet down. No ring, of course. Only the main junction loomed ahead, the feeder pipes in a spaghetti-mass. Beyond them was the outlet into the municipal main line. A black hole into the earth. Steading the cable, Larry could feel a headache forming in the front of his skull. Behind he could hear the soft tapping of the water from the leaking faucet. If there was anything to find, he thought, he would have found it by now.
The mainline went to the nearest treatment facility. In a place like Ludlow that could be twenty miles or more. Down there was the city’s or county’s problem. It was off-limits.
(Find it, Conroe’s invisible voice persisted, however long it takes!)
“Nothin',” Larry mumbled. He twisted the cable in his fist, forcing the bright LED to flash wildly about the barren pipe.
The box on the battery pack beeped.
To hell with it, he decided, let him bitch to Foss all he wants. Let him bitch himself silly.
Slowly he began to turn the crank.
As he began to wind the cable, the tapping over at the faucet grew louder. No, not just louder, but angrier somehow. On the screen the black hole of the outlet began to shrink, the endoscope bumping, jolting, clunking like a poorly weighted fishing line through weeds.
Progress was slow. Finally, it was back to ten feet.
The dripping faucet now resembled the strike of a distant hammer, but Larry barely noticed it. Now he was focused on the outlet to the main pipe. It was still visible, that deep black hole, and something about it was bothering him. Instead of shrinking, it appeared to be doing the opposite. Appeared to be growing.
Like it’s moving, almost.
You’re losing it, Kimbell, Larry thought, pressing his teeth together. His hand on the spool resumed its turn. Yet the black hole – the shadow, as he now thought of it - continued to grow. Its shape distorting, bobbing with a distinctly organic crawl. Finally, he could no longer ignore it. He stopped, gazing down at the tile beneath his knees.
Inside the pipe, beneath the tiles, Larry now heard the dripping faucet. Only now it resonated with the solidity of bones dropped into an empty can.
“La-rry,” the same voice croaked, accompanied this time by the bubbling of rising gas from the toilet bowl. Larry gazed back to the screen, a dense cold arriving as he squinted at the image there.
The shape had grown eyes.
Circular pinpricks that burned bright from the mass of black. Strange, round--
“La-rry!” The screen flickered. “La-rry!”
He could vaguely make out its black body with a mass of spidery limbs.
He heard more clacking, and froze, only now realizing what was causing that rigid tapping. It was climbing up the pipe.
“Nuh…” Larry murmured, now sweating profusely. He began to reel the spool, speed building as panic rose. Below the screen fizzed. Jumped.
Suddenly came a high pitched squeal, like a fork being dragged across a china plate. He felt urine start to run, clouding his work pants in a sorry warmth. Below a limb, black and clawed, came slithering from the bottom of the bowl amid a blur of gray sewage.
“FUCK!” Larry yelped, frozen in terror as the black limb hooked to the rim of the basin. Immediately the spindly body of something black and demonic began to drag itself through the tiny opening. “OH-OH GOD!”
He turned in panic, his head striking the door to the stall, the force knocking him down like a pin. As he fell, a stray arm caught the console, knocking it loose to crash in an explosion of glass. As though a trigger had been pulled the toilet gurgled deep.
Water flooded over the edge and across the tiled floor as through the fog he heard the creature pull itself through.
Sobbing in terror, Larry attempted to rise, only to slip landing with a dense crack he knew was the fracturing of his hip. Pain fired, his eyes stung with the blood from his head. Above, the black of the creature’s unnatural appendages, gigantic like a hairless tarantula, drooled over the edge of the seat. He let out a terrified moan. He could smell it now. By god, it smelled awful, like blood and bile and shit mixed up in a bucket and left for days.
The smell of death.
One bloodied hand reached the flusher. Pulled.
The arms writhed as the creature fought for purchase. At the same time, Larry’s other hand found the cable, still attached to the console with the sparking gash where the LCD screen had been. Closing his eyes he ripped at it, the crackle of electric charge exacerbated by the tile, the other snatching for the flush handle again.
The high-pitch scream rose as the limbs jolted in the roar of a vortex.
He saw an electric blue flame rise as the creature vanished, leaving behind nothing but the smell of lead pipes.
Larry got up slowly, panting. Below the toilet was clear now. Almost. At the bottom, the crooked shape of a finger bobbed. He stared at it, his stomach turning slowly.
The flesh was a bloodless white.
At the tip, he could see the ragged remnants of a cuticle still tainted with the faintest shade of lilac. Lilac, he remembered, her favorite color.
Below it, she was wearing a ring.
Last week or twenty years ago, which it was he could no longer say, only that he remembered how it had happened and. How he had been the one to flush it at the funeral home the day she had been buried. Angry. He had been angry for some reason.
Angry at himself.
“Larry,” her voice wept from down inside the sewer, “Larry please, don’t leave!"
With a sob, he reached for the flush and pulled. The vortex reappeared. Larry stepped back, his eyes streaming with tears as the finger and the ring vanished, replaced instead by Conroe’s business card floating in the sclear water.
Behind the tapping of the leaky faucet had resumed. And the lights went out.